Commentary: Too much money in politics? Yes

July 26, 2016
David Gans

Our campaign-finance system is badly broken and is deforming our democracy. The problem is the Supreme Court, not the Constitution.

In a series of 5-4 rulings, Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues have rewritten the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, insisting that money is speech, that corporations are an essential part of "We the People," and that the government's only legitimate interest in limiting election spending and giving is to prevent bribery.

In a series of decisions beginning with Citizens United v. FEC, the court's conservative majority opened the floodgates to massive spending by corporations and the wealthy individuals who control them, and made it possible for the wealthiest of Americans to cut million-dollar checks. Free speech is a core constitutional value, but the Supreme Court has lost sight of the fact that the Constitution also ensures a democracy equally open to all and free from corruption.

This year, we've seen fewer and fewer people giving more and more money, much of it difficult to trace because of loopholes in disclosure laws.

As the New York Times reported, during the first phase of the presidential election, 158 of the richest families in the United States, along with the corporations they control, contributed $176 million to the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. These top donors sought to use their money to enrich themselves at the expense of others, aiming to roll back regulations affecting their businesses as well as cut taxes, while shrinking entitlement programs that hardworking Americans rely on.

While money alone can't buy elections - witness the failure of Jeb Bush despite his huge war chest - it can skew public policy in favor of the superrich. It can have an especially dramatic effect at the state and local levels, where it is often shielded from effective disclosure.

The Constitution creates a democratic system of government for "We the People," not simply the wealthy few. Our system of government, James Madison insisted, was for "not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States."

Since then, "We the People" have repeatedly amended our Constitution to ensure political equality, prohibiting voting discrimination, whether based on race, gender, or age, and eliminating poll taxes.

Eliminating corruption, too, is a core constitutional commitment. The framers recognized that corruption was one of the greatest threats to government and made sure to include a host of protections designed to ensure political integrity.

In Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy equated corruption and bribery. The framers did not have such a crabbed view. Rather than prohibiting bribery, they wrote into the Constitution rules designed to prevent even the appearance of corruption. The framers sought to ensure that, in the words of Madison, the government was dependent "on the great body of the people" and not "a favored class of it."

There are four justices on the Supreme Court who are intent on further deregulating our system of money in politics and four justices who view Citizens United as a betrayal of the Constitution. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, "If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be."

At stake in the coming presidential election is whether the court will continue to unravel the fabric of our democracy, or reverse course and honor the Constitution's promise that our democracy is for all people.

David Gans is the civil rights director at the Constitutional Accountability Center ( He wrote this for